Wednesday was the first day of classes at the Emerson Academy charter school, but instead of 25 third-graders squirming in desks, the children were popping up on teacher Michelle Saunders’ laptop computer screen.
The energetic Saunders was sitting in her colorful second-floor classroom as usual, but she was teaching online lessons to students who were sitting at home, or at a caregiver’s house, as the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed school online.
In a few ways, it seemed like a normal first day — parents calling the main office about missing paperwork and teachers learning about new students who hadn’t been able to attend the orientation event.
But the physical distance and technology issues were obvious, as some parent callers couldn’t find the log-in information on their “teacher welcome letter,” and Saunders was repeatedly trying to get third-graders, sometimes through their parents, to “unmute” themselves.
Emerson Principal Landon Brown said teachers had a week of training led by some of their peers and have also done a good job on their own of building familiarity with online learning tools. Brown said he talked to some principals in Atlanta whose schools started earlier, to try to anticipate obstacles.
But he said educators have to accept that the online start of the year is not going to be perfect, so they just have to jump in, start figuring it out and move students forward.
“Usually we plan and plan for daily instruction each day. But this is not knowing what to plan and how to plan” Brown said. “And we’re an early-start school, so I told my teachers, let’s just get it going, and we can help write the playbook for other schools. Here’s what happened. Here’s what we did to troubleshoot.”
Saunders projected plenty of confidence Wednesday, emphasizing to students who were online early that they would start right on time at 8 a.m., and letting them know they were now part of the same team.
“Not everybody can be a Saunders Sunshine, so you are special,” she told the third-graders. “I only allow 25-26 sunshines. But you have to do certain things.”
After making sure the students knew they had to be ready to learn and respectful of their teacher and the group, she focused on persistence, having the students repeat after her, “I will never give up.”
Brown said the school’s aides, or paraprofessionals, will make phone calls to any family whose student was a no-show Wednesday morning. But he understands some children won’t be able to log on until evening to see recordings of the day’s sessions.
Brown said one of the biggest concerns is keeping students motivated to log on, so there will be virtual spirit weeks, plus different types of awards for participation. He said the school may DoorDash a few pizzas to a student award-winner’s home and to the school, so the child can log on for a shared tradition like lunch with the principal.
In the classroom, Saunders made her on-camera students show visual cues, like a thumbs-up, to confirm they were understanding her and staying engaged. Students each shared something about themselves — that they were new to the school, or that they liked gymnastics or dancing.
Saunders doled out compliments for students’ good answers and tried to motivate them for the year ahead.
“Let me tell you all, the things you learn while you’re a Sunshine, you’re going to be able to use forever.”